Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom have stopped at a cabman’s shelter, a small coffeehouse under the Loop Line Bridge, for a cuppa and a rest on their way home. And the hope that the coffee will sober Stephen up. After an appropriate period of such hospitality, Bloom sees that it is time to leave.
James Joyce. Ulysses, (1921).
To cut a long story short Bloom, grasping the situation, was the first to rise to his feet so as not to outstay their welcome having first and foremost, being as good as his word that he would foot the bill for the occasion, taken the wise precaution to unobtrusively motion to mine host as a parting shot a scarcely perceptible sign when the others were not looking to the effect that the amount due was forthcoming, making a grand total of fourpence (the amount he deposited unobtrusively in four coppers, literally the last of the Mohicans) he having previously spotted on the printed price list for all who ran to read opposite to him in unmistakable figures, coffee ad., confectionary do, and honestly well worth twice the money once in a way, as Wetherup used to remark.
Commonplaces Narrative Events
1. to cut a long story short authorial intervention
2. grasp the situation subjective interpretation
3. rise to his feet narrative action
4. don’t outstay your welcome rationale or justification
5. first and foremost subjective evaluation
6. good as his word characterization
7. foot the bill promise, therefore a prediction
8. take the wise precaution subjective evaluation
9. mine host authorial archness
10. parting shot subjective evaluation
11. scarcely perceptible sign narrative action
12. to the effect that subjective interpretation
13. amount due is forthcoming subjective interpretation
14. grand total characterization
15. literally the last of the Mohicans authorial intervention, allusion
16. previously spotted subjective interpretation
17. all who run can read authorial intervention, allusion
18. honestly (in this context) subjective interpretation
19. well worth it subjective interpretation
20. worth twice the money subjective interpretation
21. once in a waysubjective allusion
22. as [Wetherup] used to [remark] say attribution
The sentence without its commonplaces:
To be brief, Bloom, realizing they should not stay longer, was the first to rise, and having prudently and discreetly signaled to their host that he would pay the bill, quietly left his last four pennies, a sum—most reasonable—he knew was due, having earlier seen the price of their coffee and confection clearly printed on the menu.
Bloom was the first to get up so that he might also be the first to motion (to the host) that the amount due was forthcoming.
The theme of the sentence is manners: Bloom rises so he and his companion will not have sat too long over their coffees and cake, and signals discreetly (unobtrusively is used twice) that he will pay the four pence due according to the menu. The sum, and the measure of his generosity, is a pittance.
The sentence is itself an odyssey, for Bloom and Dedalus are going home. They stop (by my count) at twenty-two commonplaces on their way. Other passages might also be considered for the list, such as “when others were not looking.” Commonplaces are the goose down of good manners. They are remarks empty of content, hence never offensive; they conceal hypocrisy in an acceptable way, because, since they have no meaning in themselves anymore they cannot be deceptive. That is, we know what they mean (“how are you?”), but they do not mean what they say (I really don’t want to know how you are). Yet they soothe and are expected. We have long forgotten that “to foot the bill,” for instance, is to pay the sum at the bottom of it, though it could mean to kick a bird in the face. Bloom, we should hope, is already well above his feet when he rises to them. The principal advantage of the commonplace is that it is supremely self-effacing. It so lacks originality that it has no source. The person who utters a commonplace—to cut a long explanation short—has shifted into neutral.
From William H. Gass’s essay “Narrative Sentences.” Collected in Life Sentences.
Between the first Sunday of September 2015 and the first Sunday of September 2016 I ran a series of posts—every Sunday that year—I called “Three Books.” I would scan the covers of the books, and I generally tried to find books with interesting design elements to them; I would also try to find a thread between the books (but not always). The posts allowed me to write about the design and aesthetics of covers, as well as other elements of the books (y’know, like, what was actually between the covers). The posts also gave me a regular goal on a Sunday. After a year, I moved on to another series of Sunday posts I called Sunday Comics; before the Three Books thing, I posted pics of my bookshelves on Sundays and wrote about that; and before that, I posted images of death masks on Sundays. A themed post of some kind every Sunday seemed to give this accursed blog a sense of direction, however false. I don’t remember how or why I quit posting Sunday comics, but searching the tag shows me I stopped at the end of June in 2017. This whole paragraph seems like a long and rambling preamble to saying something like, Maybe I should do these Blog about posts on Sundays? Huh? What do you think?
But the title said “Three Books”…so—Three Books, chosen somewhat at random:
Captain Maximus by Barry Hannah. First edition hardback by Knopf, 1985. Cover design by Fred Marcellino.
Last summer I visited Alias East Books East in Los Angeles, where, along with sometime-Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang, I fondly fondled a signed first edition of Barry Hannah’s novel Ray. I couldn’t bring myself to pay sixty dollars for it, but one night, after a few drinks, broke down and bid on eBay for a signed Hannah—Captain Maximus. I wound up paying six dollars more than what Knopf wanted to charge folks for an unsigned edition back in ’85. This particular copy clearly has never been read. I ended up picking up the Penguin Contemporary Classics paperback version of Captain Maximus (for three dollars of used bookstore credit) and reading that instead. The signed Hannah’s spine is still pristine, and I realize that I am something awful.
The book is purple.
The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov. English translation by Michael Kenny. First edition hardback, Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1968. Design by Applebaum & Curtis Inc.
The great late great William H. Gass’s very big novel The Tunnel was one of four books I put on my 2018 Good Intentions Reading List that I didn’t previously own. (I did check it out from the library a few years back and download the audiobook—read by Gass himself–but I didn’t make a big dent). I ordered it from my favorite bookstore and it came in yesterday. The Tunnel is one of three Great Big Books I plan to (attempt to) read this year, including Middlemarch and some novel called War & Peace. I’ll probably start The Tunnel first.
Here are two selections from The Tunnel:
An Invocation to the Muse
O brood O muse upon my mighty subject like a holy hen upon the nest of night.
O ponder the fascism of the heart.
Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea, of lives embittered by resentments so ubiquitous the ocean’s salt seems thinly shaken, of let-downs local as the sofa where I copped my freshman’s feel, of failures as frequent as first love, first nights, last stands; do not warble of arms or adventurous deeds or shepherds playing on their private fifes, or of civil war or monarchies at swords; consider rather the slightly squinkered clerk, the soul which has become as shabby and soiled in its seat as worn-out underwear, a life lit like a lonely room and run like a laddered stocking.
Behold the sagging tit, the drudge-gray mopped-out cunt-corked wife, stale as yesterday’s soapy water or study the shiftless kind, seedy before any bloom, thin and mean as a weed in a walk;
Smell the grease that stands rancid in the pan like a second skin, the pan aslant on some fuel-farting stove, the stone in its corner contributing what it can to the brutal conviviality of close quarters,
Let depression like time-payments weigh you down; feel desperation and despair like dust thick in the rug and the ragged curtains, or carry puppy pee and plate-scrapings, wrapped in the colored pages of the Sunday paper, out to the loose and blowing, dog-jawed heap in the alley;
Spend your money on large cars, loud clothes, sofa-sized paintings, excursions to Hawaii, trinkets, knicknacks, fast food, golf clubs, call girls, slimming salons, booze;
Suffer shouting, heat rash, chilblains, beatings, betrayal, guilt, impotence, jail, jealousy, humiliation, VD, vermin, stink.
Sweat through a St. Louis summer and sing of that.
O muse, I cry, as loudly as I can, while still commanding a constricted scribble, hear me! help me! but my nasty echo answers: one muse for all the caterwauling you have called for! where none was in that low-life line of work before?
It’s true. I’ll need all nine for what I want to do—perhaps brand new—all nine whom Hesiod must have frigged to get his way, for he first spoke their secret names and hauled their history by the snout into his poem. For what I want to do …
Which is what—exactly? to deregulate Descartes like all the rest of the romancers? to philosophize while performing some middle-age adultery? basically enjoying your anxieties like raw lickker when it’s gotten to the belly? I know—you want to make the dull amazing, you want to Heidegger some wholesome thought, darken daytime for the TV, grind the world into a grain of Blake.
O, I deny it! On the contrary! I shall not abuse your gift. I pledge to you, if you should choose me, not to make a mere magician’s more of less, to bottle up a case of pop from a jigger of scotch. I have no wish to wine water or hand out loaves and fishes like tickets on a turkey. It is my ambition to pull a portent—not a rabbit but a raison d’être—from anything—a fish pond, top hat, fortune cookie—you just name it—a prophecy in Spengler’s fanciest manner, a prediction of a forlorn future for the world from—oh, the least thing, so long as it takes a Teutonic tone—a chewed-over, bubble-flat wad of baseball gum, say, now hard and sour in the street, with no suggestion of who the player’s picture was, impersonal despite its season in someone’s spit, like a gold tooth drawn from a Jew’s jaw.
Misfits, creeps, outcasts of every class; these are my constituents—the disappointed people—and if I could bring my fist down hard on the world they would knot together like a muscle, serve me, strike as hard as any knuckle.
Hey Kohler—hey Koh—whistle up a wind. Alone, have I the mouth for it? the sort of wind I want? Imagine me, bold Kohler, calling out for help—and to conclude, not to commence—to end, to bait, to 30, stop, leave off, to hush a bye forever … to untick tock.
Put yourself in a public place, at a banquet—one perhaps at which awards are made. Your fork is pushing crumbs about upon you plate while someone is receiving silver in a bowler’s shape amid the social warmth of clapping hands. How would you feel if at this moment a beautiful lady in a soft pink nightie should lead among the tables a handsome poodle who puddled under them, and there was a conspiracy among the rest of us not to notice? Suppose we sat quietly; our expressions did not change; we looked straight through her, herself as well as her nightie, toward the fascinating figure of the speaker; suppose, leaving, we stepped heedlessly in the pools and afterward we did not even shake our shoes. And if you gave a cry, if you warned, explained, cajoled, implored; and we regarded you then with amazement, rejected with amusement, contempt, or scorn every one of your efforts, I think you would begin to doubt your senses and your very sanity. Well, that’s the idea: with the weight of our numbers, our percentile normality, we create insanities: yours, as you progressively doubt more and more of your experience, hide it from others to avoid the shame, saying “There’s that woman and her damn dog again,” but now saying it silently, for your experience, you think, is private; and ours, as we begin to believe our own lies, and the lady and her nightie, the lady and her poodle, the lady and the poodle’s puddles, all do disappear, expunged from consciousness like a stenographer’s mistake.
William Gass: I don’t know whether The Tunnel’s hole is a trope for the Postmodern because I never understood Postmodernism. I’m not a Postmodernist. I only understand that term as it is used in architecture, where it makes some sense to me, and I don’t find the movement of much interest even there, simply eclectic and superficial. My work is probably best characterized as late or decayed Modern end of the road sort of thing, last gasp. All of my principles and models and so forth come from modernism. People may call The Tunnel Postmodern because of certain elements—visual, mostly—but everything I do has been done previously by other people. Even the dislocation and fragmentation is old stuff. Labels reflect the desire many people apparently have to give new life to old ways by conferring upon them new names. All kinds of exciting things are going on in the novel all over the world, and no one work puts an end to the production of another kind.
Jan Castro: Maybe we should trade our definitions of Postmodern. My definition, based on studying a bit with Sartre scholar Michel Rybalka, is the French idea, drawing from the range of sources that have existed both in modernist and in premodernist literatures. Modernism is a fairly strong rejection of the past whereas postmodernism recycles the past without taking it too seriously. According to my definition, you would be in the camp. You evidently have a different definition.
WG: Modernists all rode the recycling bike. The modernist tradition certainly rejects certain parts of the past, but only certain parts. Even when you have someone like Ezra Pound saying “make it new,” he’s going back to Provençal troubadours, to the Greeks. At the same time he’s saying this, he’s off stealing something from Confucius. So you can call, let’s say, Picasso modern, but he’s borrowing from Japanese, African, or other sources. This always takes place. What is important is not whether you are looking back (you had better), but how and for what reason. When you go back as a modernist in architecture, you’re going back to see, for instance, in Palladio, what you can discover about the very foundation of architecture. You can find in an earlier writer like Sterne, the very foundations of fiction—its possibilities. You don’t reach back to imitate them, to use Sterne like little signatures later on so people will say “Sterne!” When an architect suddenly starts using columns or round windows or friezes to remind us of the past, he’s probably only employing pastiche. But to go back to somebody with the idea of discovering what the art is all about, not by copying their style or mode, but by discovering the fundamental principles which they may help you to wield, that is what modernists tried to do at their best. Corbusier goes back to earlier principles to find out what architecture is all about, not to dance the Palladian polka.
I find Postmodernists rarely interested in fundamental things, but only interested in finding qualities of the past which they can decorate a modernist shed with. Most Postmodern buildings are merely modernist buildings wearing a different skirt, to switch the image. There are a few exceptions. Sterling’s Museum in Stuttgart, for example, is a triumph.
So when one returns to an earlier model, it’s not to copy something, it’s to refine the essence of the whole task. You know Cervantes understood fiction more deeply than almost anybody. You go back to find out what he knew if you can. That’s one more reason why certain people like Calvino or Borges or Beckett are so wonderful. They’re wondering what’s fundamental to their art. I undercut certain traditional forms in order to discover that beneath those superficial forms there is something that my novel, as crazy at it may appear, can share with a very well-mannered Jane Austen novel. We’re doing the same thing, basically.
JC: You have been put into the Postmodern camp by your friend Heide Ziegler.
WG:Yes, Heide certainly does, and most critics do. But when a number of us—John Barth and John Hawkes and I—were in Germany some years ago, and the Germans kept calling us postmodernists, we all rejected the label.
I have now deleted three iterations of this “RIP William H. Gass” blog post. (If this iteration survives I will not edit it (this is the only way it will survive)). Each of these earlier drafts did not start with the grammatical subject “I” (here referring to me, Ed Turner, the dumbass blogger running this dumbass blog). Instead, I (I!) tried to make “William H. Gass” the grammatical subject of each sentence (or, like, he, the pronoun reference to Gass; or, in a bit of extension, his body of literature (or some such iteration))—leading to sentences like these:
“William H. Gass was one of the best and perhaps most underrated American authors of the past one hundred years. He published three novels in his lifetime: Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (a project that took over a quarter century to finish, published in 1995), and Middle C (2013). Gass’s literary criticism—a broad term here, one that serves as a catchall for language and life and what it all means—was and is especially special in its special specialness. William Howard Gass is a literary giant who will continue to cast a long shadow” [Etcetera].
The truth is that I have to be the grammatical subject here because I want to perform the action expressed by the predicate verb, a verb which we have not yet arrived to, thanks to all of my dilly-dallying. That verb I want to arrive at is Thanks.Thanks is the whole damn big main point of this deal: I want to say Thank you. I want to say thank you to William H. Gass (he here the you) for teaching me to read literature anew. And by literature, I mean words:
“It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes” (Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
I look at the silly little blurb I spurted out above, the indented bit that begins with the grammatical subject William H. Gass. It ends in a metaphor that is properly a cliché—Gass as a giant who casts a long shadow—an image that Gass the critic wouldn’t even bother to pick apart, I hope, it being such a hackneyed bit. I’d be better off to image Gass as a giant reflecting light, not casting a shadow. A generative grow lamp, a big fat beaming sun, shining down, nourishing words. But that’s probably just as corny too.
The cast a shadow cliché though seems maybe kinda sorta perhaps possibly peradventure appropriate. Gass (never the kind of hedger to use like maybe seven synonyms for peradventure) was a critic-author profoundly confident in his prose prowess. Unlike Harold Bloom, Gass didn’t foreground an anxiety of influence in his criticism or writing. Bloom’s heir apparent James Wood claimed that the “writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Whether he was teaching me how to read or reread Gertrude Stein or William Gaddis or Franz Kafka (et al), Gass never had to show a little plumage. I never registered any competitive anxiety, but rather a writer fully in control of his own prowess. Gass was a goldenthroated original, a dude who could wallop out a few sentences, fat and heavy, and then make them nimbly bend obliquely back to some other purpose that you weren’t aware you were jogging along to.
“I haven’t, I know, given the impression that I enjoyed Mr. Gass’s book. The truth is I reveled in it, every last vivid, golden-tongued, wrong-headed word of it. Normally, I don’t like golden boys: monsters of wit, charm, the well-shaped thighs of phrase and cadence. But I don’t claim credit for making an exception in Mr. Gass’s favor…Mr. Gass will not thank me for suggesting that his book is best read as a sensuous experience, but the fact is (embarrassing to a sobersides like me) that his sentences, true or false, are pleasures. Reading them, I find myself caring about their truth or error to begin with, but ending up not caring as much as I suppose I ought, and taking them like delicacies of the palate.
Donoghue shows a bit of plumage here to Golden Boy Gass and his “well-shaped thighs of phrase,” methinks—and why not?! What motherfucker wouldn’t wish to serve up delicious sentence after delicious sentence, if he or she was able to? Donoghue calls out Gass as a “literary rake” (as if that were a bad thing) and eventually gets to the real but secret point of his essay:
“The price the literary rake pays for his dazzle is that his works stay in the reader’s mind not as convincing arguments but as things the reader wishes he had said–like this, for me, on [Malcolm] Lowry:
‘Lowry could not invent at the level of language, only at the level of life, so that having lied life into a condition suitable for fiction, he would then faithfully and truthfully record it.'”
And there we go: Donoghue gets to it then, bending assbackwards over to not say what he really means to say: I wish I had written what Gass had written. I. There, the point. I wish I had written what William H. Gass had written.
Gass was a great writer, a great critic. I haven’t read everything he’s written—I still haven’t made it through The Tunnel, but that’s something to look forward to, not a distant chore—I haven’t read everything Gass has written, but those interested in his fiction might start with Middle C or In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) or really Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998), which I think is pretty perfect. Later, advance to his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck.
And you can’t go wrong with Gass’s nonfiction. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life; here’s a sample:
“The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else (‘The Artist and Society,’Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
Or seek On Being Blue (1976), a poem disguised as a riff disguised as an essay. Or The World within the Word (1978), a collection of essays pretending to be about literary criticism that are actually about life and death and family and love and etcetera. Or if you want something more recent, something more like a master syllabus (?!), get to A Temple of Texts (2006) and read Gass on Flann O’Brien and Robert Coover and Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis and Rainer Maria Rilke and Gertrude Stein and etcetera.
I could keep listing.
Gass loved lists. Good Christ, if you want a good list, you can look to his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” included (but not really the foundation of) A Temple of Texts. Gass led me to read stuff I might not have found or tried, like Georg Büchner’s fragment Lenz, or John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig or Stendhal—but what he did best was articulate what I loved or hated or what had perplexed me in the literature I’d read or tried to read before, whether it was Gaddis or Stein or Faulkner. And, selfishly, I want more of that. RIP William Gass. But, more than that, I thank you, William Gass.
Boston, 1943. I am about to go down to the submarine base to test out for the school there. I have come into possession of the Liveright Black and Gold edition. (What a wonderful series. I loved them all. There was Jules Romain’s The Body’s Rapture, a kooky, overwrought book, I know now, but it was sex, and it was French. There was Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love, more sex, more French. There was Balzac’s The Physiology of Marriage, more sex, more French. There was Stendhal’s own On Love, ditto. There was The Collected Works of Pierre Loüys, double dots, double ditto. There was Alexandre Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, which was simply French, a disappointment. And The Red and the Black, like checker squares.) Anyway, I am lining up New London in my train table’s sights, and scanning the novel I have bought because of the series it is in, thinking that I’m not going to like climbing a rope through all that water, and thinking that the first chapter, a description of a small town, is commonplace, ho-hum, and will I be put in a pressure chamber at sub school like a canned tomato? When suddenly, I am suckered into Stendhal, and no longer read words (against all the rules of right reading I will later give myself), but barrel along like my own train, a runaway, holding my breath oftener and oftener, aware only of a insistently increasing tension, and it is not because I am underwater; it is because I am inside the magic of this narrative master. The Charterhouse of Parma would do exactly the same thing to me, except that I didn’t let a sub school come between us, but covered its lengthy length as nearly in one sitting as might be managed, snacking at the edge of it as though it were on a TV tray. That sort of gluttonous read is rare, and never happens to me now, when I read, because I read to write or teach or otherwise to talk, and not because I am a reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence.
From William H. Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” part of A Temple of Texts (2006). The essay in question is not so much an essay as it is/was a catalog to “inaugurate the International Writers Center” at Washington University.
The last sentence is what matters most to me; when I read it I nodded, or maybe didn’t nod, maybe just acquiesced in some other way, physically.
Who wouldn’t love to read like that again?
(Maybe persons young enough to not know that they are in fact reading like madpersons, seduced, etc.).
I tip my glass for gluttonous reads.
I would love to be a reading madman again, and not one who reads to write or read or otherwise talk.
Why are works of art so socially important? Not for the messages they may contain, not because they expose slavery or cry hurrah for the worker, although such messages in their place and time might be important, but because they insist more than most on their own reality; because of the absolute way in which they exist. Certainly, images exist, shadows and reflections, fakes exist and hypocrites, there are counterfeits (quite real) and grand illusions – but it is simply not true for the copies are as real as their originals, that they meet all of the tests which I suggested earlier. Soybean steak, by God, is soybean steak, and a pious fraud is a fraud. Reality is not a matter of fact, it is an achievement; and it is rare – rarer, let me say – than an undefeated football season. We live, most of us, amidst lies, deceit, and confusions. A work of art may not utter the truth, but it must be honest. It may champion a cause we deplore, but like Milton’s Satan, it must in itself be noble; it must be all there. Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once. They construct, they comprise, our experience; they do not deny or destroy it; and they shame us, we fall so short of the quality of their Being. We live in Lafayette or Rutland – true. We take our breaths. We fornicate and feed. But Hamlet has his history in the heart and none of us will ever be as real as vital, as complex and living as he is – a total creature of the stage.
The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else.
I like to shuffle around my favorite used bookstore on Fridays if I have a loose hour. This afternoon, I picked up three: A first-ed. U.S. hardback Bulgakov, an Ecco-Press-imitating-Black-Sparrow-Press Paul Bowles, and a stately-but-too-stately-too-prestigish-(as-opposed-to-“prestigious”) copy of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.
I read the devastating “The Pedersen Kid,” the first novella in the In the Heart of the Heart of the Country collection of collected novellas a few years ago when I checked this book out of the library. Some helpful joker inscribed a map in this copy:
Said joker also appended three ball pen inked cursive notes to the end of the tale:
Christ / resurrection
I think I read the next story (it’s much shorter), “Mrs. Mean,” but I confess I can’t recall it right now. I do remember returning the book to the library though.
The design of the Paul Bowles Ecco Press edition of The Spider’s House kinda sorta matches the design of In the Heart of the Heart of the Heart of the Heart (Nonpareil Books, btw). I recently finished Up Above the World (after reading and being slightly-disappointed in the more-lauded debut The Sheltering Sky). I liked Up Above the World’s sinister slow-burn. My understanding is that The Spider’s House is considered superior, so we’ll see. (2017 is turning into The Year I Finally Read Paul Bowles).
Anyway, I couldn’t pass up on this first-edition U.S. copy (1968 Harcourt, Brace & World) of Bulgakov’s novel The Heart of a Dog (English translation by Michael Glenny, with jacket design by Applebaum & Curtis, Inc.).
I also took note of this cover for Edges, a 1980 sci-fi anthology edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd (and featuring authors like Thomas Disch and Gene Wolfe)—but I didn’t pick it up, mostly because I didn’t particularly have any desire to read it, even though a much younger version of me out there would’ve loved to read it. I mean, I was thinking about that younger version of me out there; maybe that version—a different version of course—will find it.
Near the end of the first cycle-section of Doris Lessing’s novel The GoldenNotebook, protagonist Anna Wulf abandons the pretense of personal narrative in favor of pastiche, collage, clipping. Our heroine cuts and pastes material directly from the newspapers she’s been reading into her blue notebook:
[At this point the diary stopped, as a personal document. It continued in the form of newspaper cuttings, carefully pasted in and dated.]
The modeller calls this the ‘H-Bomb Style’, explaining that the ‘H’ is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. DailyTelegraph.
July 13th, 50
There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express.
July 29th, 50
Britain’s decision to spend £100 million more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman.
Aug. 3, 50
America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express.
The passages continue for pages in the same vein until:
30th March2nd H-BOMB EXPLODED. Express.
This section of The Golden Notebook fits neatly into what I’ve come to think of as the Inhumanity Museum. The writer clips from the newspaper and passes those fragments to the author, who tosses them to the speaker, the narrator, a character, perhaps—and asks: What to do with these? Can you believe this? Are there even words for this?
Which is the appeal to the writer, I think, of clippings that belong to the Inhumanity Museum: That the journalist telegraphs (plainly, simply, succinctly) what the novelist may deem ineffable.
I’ve appropriated the term the Inhumanity Museum from William H. Gass’s novel Middle C:
The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby: the Inhumanity Museum. He had painstakingly lettered a large white card with that name and fastened it to the door. It did not embarrass him to do this, since only he was ever audience to the announcement. Sometimes he changed the placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum instead. The stairs to the third floor were too many and too steep for his mother now. Daily, he would escape his sentence in order to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record:
Friday June 18, 1999
Sri Lanka. Municipal workers dug up more bones from a site believed to contain the bodies of hundreds of Tamils murdered by the military. Poklek, Jugoslavia. 62 Kosovars are packed into a room into which a grenade is tossed. Pristina, Jugoslavia. It is now estimated that 10,000 people were killed in the Serbian ethnic-cleansing pogram..
I’m still not sure exactly how the Inhumanity Museum fits into Middle C’s tale of fraud and music. Maybe it’s just Gass’s excuse to unload some of the material he’s been clipping for years. (Maybe I need to reread Middle C).
Here is Gass, in a 2009 interview, discussing William Gaddis (the emphasis is mine):
We were very close, even though we spent most of our time apart. I really had the warmest… We had great times. We both had the same views: Mankind, augh hsdgahahga!!!!. And he would read the paper and make clippings out of it. He was always saying, “Did you read…!?” We would both exalt in our gloom.
“Mankind [unintelligible]!” Ha!He would read the paper and make clippings out of it, like Pivner père in Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, who builds his own Inhumanity Museum:
…he picked up his newspaper. The Sunday edition, still in the rack beside him, required fifty acres of timber for its “magic transformation of nature into progress, benefits of modern strides in transportation, communication, and freedom of the press: public information. (True, as he got into the paper, the average page was made up of a half-column of news, and four-and-one-half columns of advertising.) A train wreck in India, 27 killed, he read; a bus gone down a ravine in Chile, 1 American and 11 natives; avalanche in Switzerland, death toll mounts . . . This evening edition required only a few acres of natural grandeur to accomplish its mission (for it carried less advertising). Mr. Pivner read carefully. Kills father with meat-ax. Sentenced for slaying of three. Christ died of asphyxiation, doctor believes. Woman dead two days, invalid daughter unable to summon help. Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart. The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. “Man makes own death chair, 25,000 volts. “Ashamed of world,” kills self. Fearful of missing anything, he read on, filled with this anticipation which was half terror, of coming upon something which would touch him, not simply touch him but lift him and carry him away.Every instant of this sense of waiting which he had known all of his life, this waiting for something to happen (uncertain quite what, and the Second Advent intruded) he brought to his newspaper reading, spellbound and ravenous.
Fénéon’s faits divers owe their survival to scissors and paste: His mistress cut each column from the paper and collected them in an album. A century later, NYRB published Novels in Three Lines, their own album of Fénéon’s faits divers.
Recently, the writer Teju Cole has followed Fénéon’s example, composing his own series of small fates. Cole began his small fates while working on his “new book, a non-fictional narrative of Lagos.” Cole’s small fates had their origin in the crime and metro sections of the Nigerian newspapers that he read daily. Attracted to the “life in the raw” presented here, Cole revised the news articles into a synthesis of Fénéon’s style with his own. He felt that these stories were “too brief, too odd, and certainly too sensational” for his new book, and yet he was compelled to tell them anyway. Even if he couldn’t fit them into his new book, they were nevertheless part of his storytelling project.
Fénéon was elevating a preexisting form of newspaper reporting, artfully injecting humor and subtle observation into the structure of his faits divers, unlike Lessing, Gaddis, or Gass, who used clippings to inject reality—and the real human inhumanity of reality—into their fictional texts.
Perhaps Fénéon was motivated by the same spirit as those later authors. Perhaps like Pivner the Elder in Gaddis’s The Recognitions “the newspaper served him, externalizing in the agony of others the terrors and temptations inadmissible in himself.” There’s something defensive about the humor in Fénéon’s faits divers, a human reaction to horror we misname inhuman.
Is there another way to react? In her short story “Greenleaf,” Flannery O’Connor converts the Inhumanity Museum into a strange, private shrine. Mrs. Greenleaf (whom the protagonist Mrs. May regards with utter contempt) buries her clippings and prays over them:
Instead of making a garden or washing their clothes, her preoccupation was what she called “prayer healing.” Every day she cut all the morbid stories out of the newspaper—the accounts of women who had been raped and criminals who had escaped and children who had been burned and of train wrecks and plane crashes and the divorces of movie stars. She took these to the woods and dug a hole and buried them and then she fell on the ground over them and mumbled and groaned for an hour or so, moving her huge arms back and forth under her and out again and finally just lying down flat and, Mrs. May suspected, going to sleep in the dirt.
The opening lines suggest an ironic displacement. Mrs. May, a thoroughly worldly figure, devoid of spirituality, thinks that Mrs. Greenleaf should be “making a garden or washing,” activities we might associate with a kind of spiritual activity—Eden-building or purifying (for Mrs. May these would be quotidian chores). Mrs. Greenleaf’s prayer healing is of course explicitly spiritual, but its spirituality directly responds to the awful lurid everyday morbidity of the news.
O’Connor doesn’t use the same (in)direct cut and paste technique as some of the other writers I’ve mentioned here, but her fiction is full of newspaper and magazine readers. I think now of Bailey, the ill-fated father in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” whom we meet “bent over the orange sports section of the Journal.” There’s something lurid about the orangeness, a bright distraction. (In O’Connor’s universe The Holy Bible is the book everyone evades contemplating). And it’s in that same paper that the Misfit is introduced, the serial killer who brings the characters from distraction back to reality.
…in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
While O’Connor was deeply invested in her own “Christian view of the world,” I think she offers a description, if not a definition, of how the Inhumanity Museum can function in literary texts. It’s the violent shock of the real that the author wishes to evoke. The utter banality of how that reality is communicated through mass texts serves to bring the shock into sharper relief.
Is the goal then to unlearn the dulled reading habits that Gaddis showcases in Pivner?: “Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart.” Yet to be so fully absorbed into the pain and ugliness and stupidity of the world would surely result in crushing madness, or “chaos,” as Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook claims. And perhaps that’s why the Inhumanity Museum is such an important location. A museum has an exit.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally published this post in August, 2014].
Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.
Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:
The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.
Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.
And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.
The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”
Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.
But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.
Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drang movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.
Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.
In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.
Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.
Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:
The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.
Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.
What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:
Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .
Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:
The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!
The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published this review in June of 2013].
Our tyrants always feel in need of excuses. Our enemies are always spying, undermining, arming, plotting, seizing the high ground, inventing new horrors, inventing flashier weapons. This mole, or that rat, is smarter than we ever”“imagined, and it is working day and night against us—cunning and conniving—out of sight, in secret—because beneath deep undergarments it holds a gun, a knife, a bomb, or a book full of dreadful ideas. We must monitor our phones, watch our neighbors—note, film, record, trace, follow, measure every movement, scrutinize every public meeting, overhear every private one, rifle records, ponder every purchase, search through garbage, twist dumb tongues till they scream with the pain of prying pliers.
Tyrannies do not come in ones or twos; tyrannies come in battalions: there is Mother’s heart you mustn’t break or Father’s hopes you dare not dash; there are the reprisals taken by society because you sniffed when you should have sneezed; there are all those looks delivered like blows from someone sitting on his high horse and wielding his scorn like a whip. It does not matter what the party motto is, what flag flies, what history pretends to teach, what rewards will be yours, what hurt feelings will follow; we need to be free to choose our own errors, our own myths, to furnish our souls as we see fit.
Of course, what we believe is important, but that we believe it freely, that we can speak of it openly, that we fear neither disapproval nor contradiction, is essential to the humanness of our being. This freedom—if it is to be freedom and not another fraud—comes at a cost. It is a cost that those who have rarely been free are often reluctant to pay, because they are as unused to the presence of liberty in others as they are of freedom when granted to themselves.
We can be real only when others are allowed to play their radios. It’s odd, but our liberty lies in the liberty of our neighbors. They will be rude; they will cross the street against the light; they will eat offal; they will entertain tyrants at tea; they will be tasteless; they will be other; they will be … That’s it … they will be. They will speak strangely, dress oddly, live quaintly, worship a deity they found in a dime store. Worse: they won’t like Bach or Henry James. Worse: they will live like gnats in annoying clouds. Worse: for us they will have no particular esteem. Worst: they will want us to be nice to them, share our rights, give them room. Worse than worst: they will deny us our desires if they can; they will blame us for their plights; they will give evidence, everywhere, of the same mean-spirited insecurities that have soiled our souls from our birth.
When we deny to others their interior life, we deny ourselves all knowledge of it.
From William H. Gass’s essay “What Freedom of Expression Means, Especially in Times Like These.” Collected in Life Sentences.
Daniel Green’s The Reading Experience was one of the first sites I started reading regularly when I first started blogging about literature on Biblioklept. If you regularly read literary criticism online, it’s likely you’ve read some of Green’s reviews in publications like The Kenyon Review, 3:AM, FullStop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Full Stop, and more.
Green’s got a new collection out from Cow Eye Press, Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, which presents his philosophy of literary criticism, drawing on writing he has done over the past dozen years on The Reading Experience, as well as essays he has published elsewhere. Beyond the Blurb lucidly explicates an approach to criticism that stresses careful attention to literary form and language. “The experience of reading is the experience of language” might be a tidy blurb for Beyond the Blurb.
In his own words, Green was trained as an academic literary critic, but has long since seen the error of his ways. He lives in central Missouri. Over a series of emails, Green was kind enough to talk to me about his new book Beyond the Blurb, literary criticism, experimental fiction, William H. Gass, the New Critics, James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel, and lots more.
Biblioklept: In the introduction to Beyond the Blurb, you outline some of the core tenets of your philosophy of literary criticism. One of these is, “The meaning of a literary work consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.'” Another tenet is that, “The experience of reading is the experience of language.”
This idea of a reader’s experience of reading appears throughout Beyond the Blurb, and indeed, your website is named The Reading Experience. Is it possible to define, or at least describe, what you mean by the reader’s experience of reading, in a general sense?
Daniel Green: The Reading Experience is a direct allusion to John Dewey’s Art as Experience. My insistence that reading is experience of language is an attempt to apply Dewey’s concept of “experience” to reading works of literature. I probably put more emphasis on language per se than Dewey did, which is likely the residual influence of New Criticism. I was a graduate student at a time when many older literary scholars—including some of those with whom I studied—were still New Critics, or at least assigned New Critics in classes I took. (Or maybe I just read a lot of New Criticism on my own).
I still think the New Critics’ general approach, which emphasized the “ambiguity” inherent to a literary work, is sound, although they went too far in using words like “icon” and “heresy,” almost making works of literature into sacred objects. I discovered Dewey’s book and was converted to the notion that works of art are objects of experience whereby the reader/beholder is given the opportunity simply to appreciate experience for its own sake. (Dewey thought works of art gave us the greatest opportunity for this).
The experience of reading is always the experience of language, even though many readers don’t stop often enough to acknowledge this. We read artfully arranged words that in works of literature create “meaning” only relative to their arrangement, which is not the arrangement to be found in newspaper columns or political speeches. A critic should be sensitive to the particular kind of arrangement—which includes the arrangement into “form”—found in a particular work. Even leaping ahead to “story” or “setting” distorts our actual experience of the work unless we also notice the way the writer has used language to create the illusion of story and the illusion of setting.
Biblioklept: Is there a risk though at falling into “the experience of the experience” when reading literature? Many people like to “get lost” in the illusion that the language of literature replicates reality. James Wood, in particular, seems to particularly value reality or life in the literature he esteems.
DG: People are perfectly free to read in any way they want, including for the illusion of reality. But I see that as a secondary effect. Has the work succeeded aesthetically in creating that illusion? It seems to me that critics ought to be those readers who are most sensitive to the “experience of the experience.” This ought to be the first goal of the critic, to describe that experience. Jumping right to “life on the page” is jumping right over the art of literary art.
Frankly, I’ve always found the notion that literature (fiction) is valuable to the extent it provides access to “reality” or “human life” bizarre. Since we’re humans writing about human experience, what other than reality could we possibly find in a literary work? Doing creative things with words isn’t separate from human life. It’s part of human life.
DG: Yeah, there are a lot of claims that the primary value of fiction lies in its ability to allow readers to “share” other people’s experience and perspective, to see the world from their point of view. On the one hand this seems to me a fairly innocuous notion. If a novel effectively conveys the illusion that you’re inhabiting another subjectivity and you think the experience has been salutary in your sense of “empathy,” then so be it. It is, however, an illusion, so on the other hand in no way are you really sharing another perspective or point of view, since what’re you are in fact experiencing is an effect of the writer’s skillful disposition of language. There are no “people” in fiction, just words and sentences, and therefore when you talk about empathizing or adopting another perspective, at best you are speaking metaphorically—it’s like empathizing with a real person, even though it’s not.
I would also say that the notion you’re sharing the author’s perspective, or engaging with the author’s “mind,” is misbegotten as well. A work of fiction (at least a good one) doesn’t have a perspective, or it would be a work of nonfiction.
I actually do think reading literature can make you a better human being, by helping you to be a better reader, or by expanding your ability to have a rich aesthetic experience. The idea it can make you ethically or morally better (presumably by teaching you a lesson) is one I assumed had been discarded long ago.
Biblioklept: I think a lot of folks still believe in “moral fiction” of some kind though (Mark Edmundson’s attack on contemporary poets in Harper’s a few years ago comes immediately to mind). Your response recalls to me some favorite lines from William Gass’s “The Medium of Fiction.” “It seems a country-headed thing to say,” he writes, “that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes cloth or metal tubes.” Gass is one of the examples you include in your chapter on “Critical Successes.” What do you admire in his criticism and his critical approach?
DG: I think of Gass as a “poet-critic,” even though he is of course a fiction writer. Indeed, I can think of few critics who make better use of the poetic resources of language in writing a criticism that is also pungent and deeply informed. He is among critics the most sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature and best able to express his aesthetic engagement in his own aesthetically rich prose. He’s a critic who registers an “appreciation” of literature more than he attempts to explicate through analysis, but there is room for both kinds of critics.
Biblioklept: Harold Bloom also strikes me as a critic “sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature,” and he also lands in your examples of “Critical Successes.” Bloom’s had a long history of pissing off various critics and even casual readers. What do you make of his agon with the so-called “School of Resentment”?
DG: I think he probably overdid the rhetoric with the “school of resentment” thing, although his underlying insight, that academic criticism had abandoned the study of literature for its own sake—to illuminate what is valuable about it—in favor of other agendas for which literature is merely a convenient tool of analysis, was certainly correct. I don’t object to forms of criticism or scholarship that favor cultural or political analysis over literary analysis, but these approaches came not to supplement or coexist with literary analysis; instead they completely replaced it. Bloom expressed his love of literature through becoming a learned professor and scholar. Now the idea that a literature professor is someone who loves literature seems quaint, if not outlandish. (Which is no doubt why Bloom seems an outlandish figure to many people).
Biblioklept: Sontag is another figure in your chapter on “Critical Successes”; indeed, you cite her at some length. Sontag wanted us to “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” What are some practical methods for critics (and readers in general) to attend more to the “sensuous surface”?
DG: With literature, that has to mean attention to the palpable features of the writer’s shaping of language. A work of fiction is not a script for the reader to imagine into his/her own movie version. The “sensuous surface” is the sound and movement of the language. Gary Lutz is a good example of a writer who understands this. Lutz’s stories deliberately frustrate attempts to read for the plot or to visualize the characters, instead requiring attention to the transformed effects of word choice and syntax. Lutz may be an extreme example, but critics should approach all works of literature in the way his fiction demands. The notion that poetry should be read this way is not such an outlandish one, and criticism of fiction has moved too far away from criticism of poetry. Both fiction and poetry should be read first of all as aesthetic arrangements of language, although I don’t say that all criticism should necessarily stop there.
Biblioklept: What are some of the directions that criticism might go after appraising the aesthetic arrangements of language?
DG: As I say, I don’t object to criticism that examines works of literature for political or historical contexts and implications, but this should be done with the proviso that works of literature (most works of literature) are offered first of all as works of art. Examining a literary work for the aesthetic arrangements of language is the way of establishing that, because its language has been aesthetically arranged, it can’t coherently be subsumed to a political position or reduced to a cultural symptom. I’m speaking here of fiction and poetry (also drama, to the extent it belongs to literature). Including works of “creative nonfiction” as literature arguably muddies the waters some, but even here the “creative” part must count for something, must mean something other than simply “nice prose.” It ought to involve ways of making “meaning” more complex, more suggestive, not more transparent.
Older, more “canonical” works can certainly serve as the focus of lots of different critical inquiries, since in most cases their specifically literary qualities can be assumed as established, but I’d want them to be taught as first of all works of literary art. Presenting them to students immediately as politics or objects of theoretical discourse seems to me to simply erase “literature” as something about which it makes sense to speak as a separate category of writing.
Biblioklept: You include “Academic Criticism” in your section of “Critical Failures.” The focus in the chapter on “Academic Criticism” is on Joseph M. Conte’s study of American postmodern literature, Design and Debris, and not necessarily academic criticism in general. In general though, do you think American universities and schools are neglecting the aesthetics of literature in favor of different “theoretical” approaches?
DG: Yes, of course they are. I don’t think many academic critics would deny it. Certainly most of the academic journals that determine which approaches are informally—if not “officially”—sanctioned and which are disdained are now completely devoted to non-aesthetic approaches. Lately a quasi-formalist strategy called “surface reading” has become more respectable, but even it is offered as a corrective to certain kinds of theoretical overreach and doesn’t finally threaten the hegemony of theory itself as the primary concern of academic criticism. What’s called “digital humanities”—data-mining using literary texts as data—shares with theory the assumption that assessing works of literature for their aesthetic qualities was long ago deemed insufficiently “rigorous” as a way of organizing the study of literature—although for some reason, unclear to me even now, the term “literature” has been retained to identify the nominal object of study, and what these critics do is still referred to as “literary study.”
There are, of course, professors who do continue to present literary works as works of art. They are surely in the minority, however, particularly in the more prestigious universities.
Biblioklept: Another entry in your section on “Critical Failures” is James Wood, whom you devote quite a few pages to. I often find myself very frustrated with Wood’s approach to literary criticism, but he’s also a very perceptive reader.
DG: Yes, he can be a very insightful reader. I think in the essay I say that he is, on the one hand, one of the few practicing critics who is able to focus very closely on the text under consideration and offer a sensitive “reading.” But, on the other hand, he uses that sensitivity to advance a very narrowly conceived agenda. It seems to me he isn’t reading the work to understand what the author is doing, whatever that might be, but to find support for his bias toward psychologically complex realism. It causes him to unfairly characterize fiction for which he does not have affinity (“hysterical realism”), when he’s not merely ignoring work that contradicts his agenda. I actually learn from his reviews of some writers, especially certain translated authors whose work clearly does conform to his preconceptions of “how fiction works.” But he seems to know very little about American literature, and his critical agenda especially distorts the formal and aesthetic assumptions of many American writers, particularly those in the tradition of nonrealist writing going back to Poe and Hawthorne. Since the kind of experimental writing I admire to a significant extent has its source in that tradition, naturally I find his approach objectionable.
Biblioklept: Wood often violates the first of John Updike’s “rules” of reviewing books (from Picked-Up Pieces): “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
DG: Yes, that’s exactly right. You can then either judge the author a failure by the standards he/she has adopted, or you can rule what the author has attempted out of court—that’s not the sort of thing a novelist should be doing. It would be hard to justify the latter position, although you could mount a sustained critique of the author’s chosen mode. Perhaps its conventions are stale or its strategies are incoherent. Mostly Wood doesn’t do this. He instead continues to judge by the standards of his preferred mode—it’s realism all right, but it’s “hysterical.”Continue reading “An interview with literary critic Daniel Green about his new book, Beyond the Blurb”→